WILKES-BARRE – Excitement surrounding Pittsburgh Penguins hockey isn’t limited to Pittsburgh or Western Pennsylvania.
Actually, it’s sweeping the hockey world.
Mike Emrick, John Davidson and Pierre Maguire confirmed that Thursday when they came to the Wachovia Arena to shoot a feature segment for NBC Sports with Penguins stars Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby during Penguins training camp.
It’s rare for a hockey player to gain national attention before he has even played in a regular-season game. However, Crosby has already made a huge impact with the Penguins. Winning the NHL Draft Lottery and getting the chance to select Crosby in the NHL Entry Draft gave Pittsburgh the opportunity to land big-name free agents like Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy and John LeClair.
“Mario said on the air the day they got Sidney, ‘We’re no longer going to be sitting on the sidelines; we’re going to buyers not sellers.’ When he said that, that sent a distinct message to the whole league,” said Maguire, a former Penguins scout and assistant coach who is part of Canada’s TSN broadcast crew also. “I really think this is a credit to Mario. Mario saved the franchise three times before this so he is going to save it again.”
Davidson, who is part of the New York Rangers broadcast team as well, knows that the Penguins are back in a big way as a force in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s kind of like the opportunity here for the return to glory – the opportunity. It still has to be proven, but I am pretty sure they are going to be a good hockey club,” he said. “Their young kids developed a lot and now with the veteran players in the mix and the youth and the energy – the whole thing is very good. It’s really nice to see. When teams are entertaining and good, they can go on the road and fill up buildings. I think Pittsburgh, when they travel, is a team that’s going to get a lot of action going. It’s great.”
Emrick, who does play-by-play for New Jersey Devils games also, was disappointed Crosby didn’t go to his Devils, but happy he went to Pittsburgh.
“Any of us that are affiliated with a team were sort of selfishly thinking maybe they’d get Crosby. When Pittsburgh wound up with him, I thought, ‘Well isn’t that justice that a guy of that caliber is going to come to that city,’” he said. “I will never forget the many times Mario self-sacrificed for the sake of keeping hockey in Pittsburgh. Now, he’s got someone with him that can help light up that city. We must be careful not to put too much pressure on him right away – he’s not supposed to have 100 points by Christmas.
“The other side of it is, one of the five awards he won in the Quebec Junior League was for personality. That’s good because that helps, too,” he continued. “People want to see faces light up on television, rather than guys just giving the casual answer that is predictable to everything. To have a guy who really helps through his charisma sell the sport – I think that is something he can do, just like Mario did and some of the other greats we now talk about.”
Maguire got to cover Crosby extensively the past two years in junior and international hockey tournaments. He is thoroughly impressed with the 18-year-old center.
“I have had a chance to cover Sidney at the last two World Junior Hockey Championships and I got to know him very well when I was covering the Memorial Cup this year in Ontario,” he said. “ He is special. He is the real deal. He handles the media so well. He is obviously learning from a great guy in Mario. Having (Mark) Recchi here and LeClair here is huge. But, he’s special. He is a unique player – probably the most unique player to come into the league since Mario.”
Davidson is impressed with Crosby as well.
“Just knowing him by what I have heard and seen on television – it’s huge. Pittsburgh hockey fans should count their blessings every day before they go to bed because they’ve got Sidney Crosby,” he said. “He’s a determined kid on the ice and he’s even a better kid off the ice.”
Maguire points the addition of Recchi as a key to the Penguins’ success. Recchi signed with the Penguins on July 9, 2004 – just before the start of the NHL work stoppage that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
“The thing to me that kind of sent the message to the rest of the league that Pittsburgh was serious was when they signed Mark Recchi the year before,” Maguire said. “I think Mark is just going to be the tremendous tonic that helps stir the forwards even more. He is going to energize Sidney and everyone else. He could play another five years easily because he can still skate.”
In addition, Emrick believes the Penguins have the right coach in Eddie Olczyk. Despite the Penguins’ last-place finish in 2003-04 – Olczyk’s first season behind the bench – the team went 12-5-3 in the last 20 games to show great progress and promise.
“The one factor that can be easily forgotten because it’s been so long ago is that Eddie Olczyk’s team in the last 20 games of the last season we had was really good,” Emrick said. “They had winning records and were spoilers for a lot of other teams. I think having that blend and having someone who keeps the place loose will make a big difference in how well Sidney as well as the other players they have will do.”
Maguire, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, is happy to see a hockey renaissance in Pittsburgh.
“I think the fact that fans are re-energized in Western Pennsylvania is gigantic. They are great hockey fans,” he said. “It’s a misnomer when people say Pittsburgh is not a good hockey town – that’s ridiculous. It’s a tremendous hockey town.
“This is a team that’s going to battle for a playoff spot in a good way and I think that’s very exciting to the league and Mario. I couldn’t be more excited for Mario,” he continued. “I am really proud of the way people have stepped up and bought tickets because they recognize it’s a great product. The franchise could not be more media-friendly. They have gone about their business so professionally that I think fans should be very proud in Pittsburgh. Now, it’s up to the politicians to help them get a new building because they need it.”